“Below the Surface” in Vela Magazine
At one point Alejandro tosses a fish and it hits me across the face, like a slap on the cheek.
“Disculpa, señora, disculpa!” he says, apologizing quickly before he’s back to snapping fins. But the fish doesn’t really hurt (no stinging whiskers or slicing dorsal fins) as much as the feeling that even when I’m helping I’m in the way.
Eventually the man in the hat asks, “Aren’t you going to swim?”
“I may,” I say. And I want to. I even have a bathing suit on beneath my clothes, and it’s so hot, but I feel too shy to strip down in front of the rum-drinking fishermen. And the murky water. No idea how deep it is, or what lurks in there. Maybe something like the candirú, the fish that supposedly “will dart up your prick or your asshole or a woman’s cunt faute de mieux, and hold himself there by sharp spines with precisely what motives is not known”—how Burroughs explained the Amazonian species in Naked Lunch. Probably not, yet myths like this arise in order to explain what we don’t know: what, exactly, is floating in freshwater streams of tropical waterways.
Everybody else swims, though, except for me and the thirteen-year-old. He swats and dances as the sandflies attack his ankles and thighs; they’re attacking mine, too, and for the first time I feel like the long pants maybe weren’t so stupid, and I unroll the cuffs which I’d been attempting to keep dry as I walked up the stream. My lower legs are already covered with bites that itch so bad that when I scratch them small shivers of pleasure run through my core. Some of the bites swell into tiny blood blisters at the tips, and when I scratch blood smears across my skin. Everyone else’s arms and shoulders are ravaged, the biting insects making new topography out of our skin, Abraham’s back erupting in thousands of tiny purple bumps. But he treats it like a minor nuisance.
Once Alejandro submerges underwater, sneaking up behind the boy and grabbing his leg. The kid screams and jumps out of the water.
“Don’t be afraid,” Abraham keeps saying. “There’s nothing in there to be afraid of.”
But there’s plenty to be afraid of. Just, perhaps, not whatever the kid is imagining. There’s no reason, for example, to be afraid of fireballs. And it’s the dry season, the safest time to be in the jungle, but there are still water-borne diseases and biting insects that pass parasites into human bloodstreams. There are botflies, whose tiny larvae burrow beneath human skin to subcutaneous layers. They gestate within the warmth of the foreign host for weeks and eventually emerge as larger, writhing larvae, dropping to the ground to pupate in the soil. Botflies are not life threatening unless terrible infection occurs, and the infection often occurs when the host successfully kills the larvae but does not extract it completely from under the skin.
But the miniscule isn’t what Abraham’s reassurance is about. Don’t be afraid, he means to say, of things that grab your legs below the water. Don’t be afraid of beasts that want to eat you, of amphibious men who live in the muck and feast on swimming children.
Earlier, when the kid had shared his fireball story, the man in the hat had talked about how when he was a kid he was afraid of evil spirits. He would make his mother light a candle when he went to bed.
“What were you scared of?” someone asked him.
“I don’t even know,” he said. “The dark? Evil in general?” He laughed at himself. “I guess I was afraid of what I didn’t know.”
And that’s what Abraham means to tell the kid—don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid of your own imagination, which can drive you to self-sabotage. Be rational, he means to tell the kid, like any reasonable adult might advise a child.
But then, to be rational is to look in the face of what is really there. It’s a hard call deciding what’s worse: fireballs and evil spirits, or insects that parasitize humans and the fauna that actually does live below the surface of the murky water.